The United States of Obstruction

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Election Day came and went this week, but you don’t need me to tell you that. Your Facebook feed was probably full of reminders and admonishments to get out and vote, as well as forwarded articles about the dire consequences of allowing the Republicans to take control of the Senate (or, if you’re a member of my family not typing this piece, the dire consquences of allowing the Democrats to retain control of the Senate). My Twitter feed was also full of predictions that polling suggested the GOP would soon have full command of the Congress unless Democrats showed up and voted in higher-than-usual numbers.

I had no reason to doubt these predictions; advance polling is usually correct about these things, at least in the broad strokes. And I certainly don’t share the Republicans’ vision of what constitutes a good government.

I still didn’t vote, though.

To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what I would have voted on if I had voted. I know Andrew Cuomo was re-elected governor of New York by like 40 points, so he didn’t need my help; I guess there were some local elections I could have voted in too but Brooklyn is so solidly Democratic my vote wouldn’t make any difference one way or the other.

But even so, when Tuesday came, all this YOU HAVE TO VOTE admonishment coming through my various social feeds made me think I should go be a Good Citizen and do my Civic Duty.

But I hadn’t read up on any of the propositions on the ballot — if indeed there were propositions on the ballot — and I didn’t know anything about any of the candidates. Even when I do vote, I usually abstain from the propositions because they are always so badly written I don’t know what I’m voting for or against.

I suppose I could have gone in there and just voted a straight Democratic ticket, even though I didn’t know any of the names on the ballot, because I tend to vote Democratic when I do know the names. But something about that feels wrong to me. I don’t want to vote for someone solely because of the color of their jersey. I voted for Obama because I liked (and still like) Obama. He’s obviously very intelligent, obviously a very hard worker, obviously not going to subject us to any personal scandals or ethical lapses. It certainly helps that we agree (in the broad strokes) on policy, but that’s not the whole ballgame. If I was just going to vote strictly on policies I might very well have voted for John Edwards, and I think everyone, even the 113th Congress, can agree that nobody wants that.

Even if I wasn’t in a “safe” district, or a “safe” state, and my vote might have meant more, in the current political climate it really doesn’t (didn’t) mean anything. For most of Obama’s term one party (not naming names) has obstructed literally everything that the other party wanted to do by blocking everything with the filibuster.

Now the Repulbicans have a majority, but it’s not a supermajority, so the Democrats will block everything they want to do with the filibuster. And even if they pass something, Obama will veto it. The effective difference between the outgoing 113th Congress and the incoming 114th is nil, and it’s hard to see any way that this changes in the future.

The defining characteristic of modern politics, as if you need me to tell you, is polarization. It’s no longer enough to disagree with the other side; we have to think they’re some combination of crazy and stupid to hold the beliefs they hold. This condition seems to be deepening and it means that “safe” districts for either party, which is increasingly close to all of them, will never, ever even consider voting anything other than a straight ticket (one way or the other). But it also means that the people they elect dare not make any kind of compromise on anything, lest they become the target of a primary challenge from someone even more inflexible than they are.

As a result, American democracy has devolved into a big game of Tic-Tac-Toe: X thinks it’s about to win, O blocks; O gets two in a row, X blocks; on and on and on. Victory is no longer the achievement of an initiative, it’s stopping the other side from achieving an initiative.

I am even seeing this at the lowest level of local politics, almost literally in my own backyard. I live in Brooklyn, one block south of Empire Boulevard, a big industrial thoroughfare that for the 10 years I’ve been in the neighborhood has been host to a stretch of one-story businesses: an auto parts store, another auto parts store, a Firestone tire place, three gas stations, a mortuary, a roller skating rink, a couple of laundromats, and an all-Hasidic building supply place. There is also a gynecologist with a giant photo of his face above his door, which might be the creepiest thing ever.

Over the last few years a couple of the gas stations have been torn down and replaced with other one-story businesses like a strip mall and a fast good place, and the roller skating rink was razed in favor of a 5-story self-storage place (we have a lot of those in New York City). All these buildings look like hell, except for the storage place, because they just built it. They add nothing to the community, they aren’t putting people to work, there is no place for people to gather, and the businesses themselves don’t even appear to be succeeding.

Since the neighborhood is gentrifying rapidly — we got a full page in the New York Times a while back so housing demand is very high — housing in the neighborhood is in high demand, and that two-block stretch of Empire Blvd., an eyesore if ever there was one, is practically screaming to be razed and rebuilt.

Anticipating a flood of developers seizing the area, the local community board held a series of hearings to reach a consensus on what the neighborhood would like to see from any new development, so that it can proactively rezone the area so that developers will then have to work within those guidelines. Height limits on new buildings, allowances for below-market (“affordable”) housing, things like that. The community board condensed this wish list into a single document and submitted it to the city as part of a request for a rezoning study, the first of many, many steps in the process.

I was unaware of any of this until I started getting flyers stuck through my mail slot, admonishing me to join MTOPP — the Movement to Protect the People — and protest the development of Empire Boulevard. There are going to be apartment buildings, bars, and restaurants before you know it unless we do something, these flyers warned.

I am 100% in favor of more bars and restaurants, in the neighborhood. Despite the recent flowering of the area it is an area where we are still woefully deficient, and I love the idea of not having to ride the subway for 30 minutes to see some live music or get something to eat. If a few apartment buildings are the price of those amenities, it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay, even if the apartment buildings are visible from my back yard, as they would very likely be. I showed the flyer to my wife and we immediately agreed that not only do we not oppose this kind of development, such opposition is ultimately futile; there is no legitimate argument that Empire Blvd. needs to be preserved, or adds anything at all to the community. It seems obvious that the only argument against it is from the people whose back yards abut Empire; they don’t want to live through a year or two of cranes and piledrivers and construction, or find themselves with taller buildings than what they have now shadowing their property. It’s a selfish, totally understandable, deeply unrealistic position, but MTOPP seems to have brought quite a few people around to it.

MTOPP has terrorized the last few board meetings, screaming and making a scene, making violent threats, accusing everyone of racism and being in the pocket of the developers, and generally making things unpleasant for the members of the community board — unpaid volunteers, mostly retirees. They even served the woman who drafted the request for the zoning study with a lawsuit. They are obstructing the process. The people they’re obstructing have the same goals MTOPP claims to have — height limits, affordable housing — but they at least acknowledge that some kind of development on Empire is inevitable so they’d better get in front of it before the developers shove something terrible down our throats.

The result of this obstruction is probably going to be that A) no one ever volunteers for the community board again; B) the city goes out of its way not to involve this particular community board in any development talks, for fear of a pointless riot; and C) the development happens anyway. We all squabble amongst ourselves and the Big Money does whatever they want in the end. It feels like the whole country in microcosm.

So I’m a little jaded and a little discouraged by politics at all levels right now. Maybe I should have voted, but then again I don’t play Tic-Tac-Toe anymore either.

(Apart from my own observations, most of what I know about the MTOPP debacle comes courtesy of the neighborhood blog The Q At Parkside. Thanks for keeping us in the loop, Q!)

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